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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Welcome restraint seen in border-temple issue

Welcome restraint seen in border-temple issue

THE Asean community has reason to breathe a sigh of relief as Cambodia and Thailand reached an interim agreement this week on their Preah Vihear dispute. The two countries came too close to armed hostilities for their neighbours to avoid raising concern. The situation, indeed, remains sufficiently unsettled for anyone to take for granted an enduring resolution.
For the time being, foreign ministers Hor Namhong of Cambodia and Tej Bunnag of Thailand have managed to keep the conflict from worsening. Their accord reduces the most immediate sign of tension; more troops from both sides will leave the overlapping area around the temple.

It also envisages removal of landmines. Making it possible again for tourists to visit the site will promote a return to normalcy. The challenge remains, nevertheless, for the two governments to ratify what the ministers have reached in informal talks. An even greater challenge confronts the joint boundary commission, which the negotiators have agreed will be the key mechanism to settle the issue. The dispute remains more fundamentally over borders than over property ownership.

More than a hundred years ago, French cartographic ineptitude or simply colonial hauteur placed the thousand-year-old temple on one side of the boundary and then on the other. The International Court of Justice awarded Preah Vihear to Cambodia in 1962, but left unadjudicated the boundary ambiguity that gave rise to competing claims to the sanctuary. Preah Vihear, nevertheless, remains a potent symbol of gain and loss in territorial integrity. When - as is the case these days - there is no lack of ambitious politicians on either side to inflame and then exploit nationalistic passions, the dispute can easily boil over.

The latest re-ignition arose, ironically, from Unesco's designation last month of the temple as a World Heritage site. The proposal to underscore its 'outstanding universal value' - if implemented without any territorial implications - could yet contribute to building trust and confidence, not to mention increased tourism for both countries. In the event, neither the United Nations nor Asean played a direct role in negotiations to defuse the danger. Still, Asean influence must have weighed on Cambodia and Thailand even as they confined themselves to bilateral channels.

Both sides adhered to the Asean spirit of peaceful conflict resolution. This is an important gain for the grouping as it continues to build institutions and mechanisms for cooperation. As the two sides resume more difficult talks in the coming days, a relieved Asean should remain ready to help.

ST Aug 23 2007

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